Hazrat Ali (A.S) was the son of Abu Talib, a prominent Quraish chief and custodian of the Holy Ka’bah. Abu Talib was so-called because he was the father of “Talib,” the eldest brother of Hazrat All. The real name of Abu Talib was ‘Abd Manaf.’ However, he was more popularly known by his surname than by his real name. Abu Talib was the son of Abdul Muttalib. Abdul Muttalib was also a surname, his real name being Shaybah. Abdul Muttalib was the son of Hashim. Hashim was a great man of his line, and his descendants came to be known as Hashimites.
The mother of Hazrat Ali (A.S) was Fatima. She was the daughter of Asad who was a son of Hashim. Fatima was a cousin of Abu Talib. Thus, both the father and mother of Hazrat Ali were Hashimites, and that was a great honour.
Date of birth
The exact date of birth of Hazrat Ali (A.S) is not known with any degree of certainty. According to Traditions, Hazrat Ali (A.S) was born on the 13th of Rajab in the 28th year of the Elephant era.
Ancestry of Hazrat Ali (A.S) and the Holy Prophet (PBUH)
The holy Prophet (PBUH) was the son of Abdullah who was the son of Abdul Muttalib. Abdullah and Abu Talib were real brothers. Abu Talib was thus the real paternal uncle of the Holy Prophet of Islam. Hazrat Ali (A.S) was the first cousin of the holy Prophet. The holy Prophet and Hazrat Ali (A.S) had a common grandfather who was Abdul Muttalib.
Greatness of Hazrat Ali (A.S)
Greatness is a phenomenon in which specially gifted persons who are endowed with extraordinary qualities appear on the world stage from time to time. History is the science which studies this phenomenon of greatness. Usually every person who scales the heights of greatness and acquires a place in history is a success from the worldly point of view. Here there is a peculiarity in the greatness of Hazrat Ali (A.S). He was great, indeed very great, but he was not a success from the worldly point of view in the conventional sense that the word ‘success’ is understood. We have thus to undertake a study to probe into me causes that militated against the success of Hazrat Ali (A.S) from the worldly point of view in spite of his greatness. We will also have to consider how he is great when he did not succeed in the worldly sense.
Periods in the life of Hazrat Ali (A.S)
The life of Hazrat Ali (A.S) can be divided into three distinct periods. The first period comprises the first 32 years of his life and extends from 600 to 632 CE. This period can be called one that of the education and action. It was during this period that he received his education under the loving care of the holy Prophet; imbibed with values of Islam; and acquired all the attributes that contribute to greatness. In the post-Hijri years, he emerged as the greatest warrior of the age. He distinguished himself as a great warrior in the battles of Badr, Uhud and the Khandak. His crowning success was his conquest of the Khyber. He thus came to be known as the “Lion of God.”
He acted as a Justice, and acquired fame for his wise and well-reasoned judgments. He acted as the Governor of Yemen, and acquired a good deal of experience as administrator. He had the honour of announcing the verses of the Holy Qur’an about the “Declaration of lmmunity” to the people on behalf of the Holy Prophet on the location of the Hajj. When the holy Prophet died, Hazrat Ali (A.S) was in the prime of his youth and he was enlightened, experienced, wise, valiant –the embodiment of virtue.
The second period constitutes that of the Caliphate which continued for 24 years when the office of the caliphate was held by Hazrat Abu Bakr (R.A), Hazrat Umar (R).A) and Hazrat Usman (R.A) respectively. During this time, although Hazrat Ali (A.S) acted as the Counsellor to Caliphs, he generally kept aloof from active politics. This period can be called the period of inaction and contemplation. It was a period of inaction from the political point of view, because he kept aloof from politics. It was the period of contemplation from the spiritual point of view, for this period was spent by Hazrat Ali (A.S) mostly in prayer, religious exercises and dialogue with God. The further he went from the world, the nearer he got to God.
The third period began when Hazrat Ali (A.S) was elected as Caliph. This period only lasted for five years. This period may be called the period of frustration. Hazrat Ali (A.S) found the caliphate to be a bed of thorns. During those five years, he fought three battles: (i) the Battle of the Camel, (ii) the Battle of Siffin, and (iii) the Battle of Nahrawan. All three battles were fought against the Muslims and led to considerable bloodshed. It was a matter of the great shock for him, that instead of fighting against non-Muslims, he had to fight against Muslims. During this period, Hazrat Ali (A.S) had to suffer from frustration because of repeated and continuous betrayals, even by men close to him.
Causes for the failure of Hazrat Ali (A.S) from the worldly point of view
The usual phenomenon of greatness is that men succeed in life, and because of such success may acquire greatness. The usual law is that greatness is the consequence of success. Nothing succeeds like success and nothing fails like failure. This means that if you succeed, you become great, but if you fail, you are pushed aside and are forgotten. In Hazrat Ali’s case we come across an extraordinary exception to this law of success and greatness. Hazrat Ali’s greatness was of a different species. His greatness did not flow from success in life. Such greatness was inherent in him. It preceded his encounter with the world and it outlived his death, although he did not succeed in his worldly life as the word ‘success’ is usually understood. Instead Hazrat Ali (A.S) became more famous after death than when he was alive.
By the time Hazrat Ali (A.S) came to office, a generation had passed since the death of the holy Prophet. During this period, the Muslims had made large conquests. This had brought great wealth, and wealth had changed people’s lives. A capitalist class sprang up among the Muslims. Hazrat Ali (A.S), a great Muslim of the old type, wanted to enforce the austere discipline of the original Islam. He himself led a very simple life, and aimed to follow in the steps of Hazrat Umar. Hazrat Ali (A.S), however, lacked the firmness of Hazrat Umar, and could not enforce the reforms he had in mind. There was a gulf between Hazrat Ali (A.S) and the capitalist class who wielded considerable influence. Hazrat Ali (A.S) was very parsimonious in the spending of public funds; while Muawiyah, who himself had lead a luxurious life, was quite liberal in the spending of public funds. The capitalist class among the Muslims preferred Muawiyah to Hazrat Ali (A.S) as they were given to the worldly way of life. While Hazrat Ali (A.S) was more concerned with the Hereafter than this world, people around him were more concerned with the world than the Hereafter. This difference in outlook could not be bridged, and that is why there were many betrayals in the camp of Hazrat Ali (A.S). These betrayals weakened his position of considerably for he was a man of strong principles and would not compromise with those principles. The people who were opposed to him were masters in propaganda and they didn’t hesitate to adopt any means, whether fair or foul, to gain their ends. Hazrat Ali (A.S) lost the game because he would not abandon his principles at any cost.
Hazrat Ali (A.S) was of medium-high height. He had a superb head with a face as noble as the man himself. His nose was straight, and his mouth was beautifully formed. His eyes were most commanding, being full of light and luster. There was a note of music in his voice. There was an aura of spirituality and a strong personal magnetism about him. In his youth he was handsome and full of fiery vigour
When he was older he became corpulent and bulky. His gray hair gave way to baldness. His beard, however, remained thick and luxuriant, and he often dyed it red. He was stout, genial, charitable, meditative, reserved, and he was a man who towered high above the people around him because of his intellectual and spiritual attainments.
Hazrat Ali (A.S), the man
Hazrat Ali (A.S) was endowed with all the qualities that make a man great. He was not only great, he was regarded as a superman, an ideal man. He was the paragon of virtue. He enjoyed fame for his piety and religious devotions. He was the embodiment of Islamic values. In his love of God and His Messenger, he was second to none. When praying to God, his absorption was so intense that he often lost consciousness. His mind was so sure that he could hold communion with God. He had learned the Holy Qur’an by heart, and he could quote appropriate verses to suit every occasion. He was most truthful and honest. He was most humble. He was simple in his habits. He avoided display and luxury. He lived the life of an ascetic. Even when he was Caliph he lived in an ordinary house. The door of his house remained open to everyone at all times. He was most generous. He was most liberal in giving charity. He always came to the help of those who were distressed and involved in any difficulty. He looked after widows and orphans as if they were members of his own household. He was a warrior, a general, and a man conspicuous for his bravery and valour. Indeed he was braver than any other man in history. He fought hundreds of duels in his lifetime, and in all such encounters his rivals were worsted. In the various battles, he killed a record number of enemies. He was skilful swordsman and his sword never missed its mark. In the various battles that he fought, he never turned his back. In the battle of Uhud, he received so many wounds that the nurses were unable to dress them. He bore the pain with great patience. The people around him misunderstood him, yet he did not lose patience. He was most chivalrous, and forgiving. He would forgive even his worst enemies. He was a great scholar. His book Nahj ul-Balagha is a living proof of his scholarship and erudition. There was a sense of humour about him, and sometimes he said things in a lighter vein to bring home the point he had in mind. He was a master of the simile and metaphor, and when bringing home a point he always illustrated it with appropriate metaphors and similes. He was a great philosopher, and there was great depth in his thoughts which were expressed in his writing. He was known for his wisdom. He was indeed wiser than Solomon. Most of his wise sayings have attained the dimensions of proverbs. He was a great orator. His sermons were most impressive. He was a master of rhetoric. He is regarded as the father of Islamic learning. He has left a deep mark on Islamic theology. He was the founder of Arabic grammar. He was a great poet. He was the father of Sufism. He was the father of Islamic jurisprudence. He was in impartial judge and his famous judgments are the most valuable assets of Islamic jurisprudence. He was a skilful administrator. He introduced numerous reforms. He was an eminent political thinker for his political thought had an air of modernity about it. The greatness of Hazrat All as a man is multi-dimensional in character, and after the holy Prophet, he was the greatest Muslim whose memory is honoured by Muslims all over the world.
Allama Iqbal in his poem “Asrar-i-Khudi,” Allama Iqbal paid tribute to Hazrat Ali (A.S) in the following terms:
“AM, the son-in-law of the Prophet was a man of many qualities.
He gave fresh vigour to Faith.
And brought honours to the community of the faithful.
He developed self-disciplines and killed avarice.
A person who knows and controls himself rules the world.”
Because of his multidimensional greatness and outstanding qualities, Hazrat Ali (A.S) is known by many appellations, such as Murtaza, Maula, Haider-i-Karrar, Asad Allah and Mushkil Kusha, to mention, but a few.
Similes of Hazrat Ali
Hazrat Ali (A.S) had the peculiar skill to explain things by giving appropriate similes. In his various addresses and sermons, we come across many instances of his brilliance of expression that brings home the truth through these interesting examples.
The world: The world is like a serpent which is outwardly very soft skinned but poisonous within.
Falsehood: Like the feathers of a peacock, falsehood might look very attractive, but is as ugly as [as are the] feet of a peacock. Falsehood has no legs to stand upon.
The unbelievers: Unbelievers are like bats who can see in the dark, but who are blinded by daylight and [so] cannot see.
The people who did not respond to his call: When Hazrat Ali (A.S) exhorted the people of Iraq to respond to his call for war against Muawiyah, they did not respond to his call. He said, “You are like a pregnant woman who undergoes the ordeal of childbirth, but gives birth to a dead child.”
The people who run after the world:
About the people who run after the world, Hazrat Ali (A.S) said, “Those people who chase after the world are like beasts who lunge at one another, with the strong oppressing the weak.”
The people who are not deceived by the world: About the people who are not deceived by the world, Hazrat Ali (A.S) said, “Those who have understood the deceptive character of the world, do not feel distressed on death. They are like the people who migrate from a famine-struck land to a land of plenty.”
Devotion to the world: Those who are devoted to the world are like barking dogs and ferocious animals who lunge at one another and where the strong devour the weak.
Virtue of silence: Hazrat Ali (A.S) advocated the virtue of silence by advancing the simile that water can be preserved in a waterskin only when its mouth is tied.
The Sayings of Hazrat Ali (A.S)
• He who knows himself knows God.
• The disease of the heart is worse than
the disease of the body.
• Riches without faith are the greatest
• The learned lives although he dies.
• Generosity hides shortcomings.
• Jealousy devours virtue as fire
• He who praises you murders you.
• A man is hidden under his tongue.
• Association with a fool is tyranny to
• A wise enemy is better than a foolish
• The right of freedom of speech
consists in speaking the truth.
• As a man’s wisdom increases so his
desire to speak decreases.
• Knowledge and practice are twins,
and both go together for there is no
knowledge without practice, and no
practice without knowledge.
• He who listens to a backbiter loses a